Tackling health at work is a complex task. It means examining a number of areas across the workplace in order to address employee wellbeing as a whole. The Health at Work Summit certainly gave delegates the opportunity to do this – with ideas for change across many different areas. I think the first task for many people will be to work out exactly where to begin. However, looking at health at work from a mental health perspective, for me it reinforced the view that people should be at the centre of any approach to improve mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
From talking to other attendees on the day it was clear that there was a very positive attitude to the topic. Everyone attending was looking for avenues that they could explore to improve the physical and mental health of employees. This was across HR teams, occupational health teams, and those in other management positions. The sessions in the conference provided plenty of food for thought, looking at issues which spanned: the developing public policy agenda; the case for wellbeing at work; an ageing workforce, and; how to develop both physical and mental health strategies in the workplace. However, the session that resonated with me the most was by Nicola Oliver from the Centre for Mental Health, who shared her own experiences of mental ill health at work.
Bipolar disorder at work – a personal journey
Nicola talked about the onset of bipolar disorder whilst in work, and the journey that she has taken since then to manage her condition and work at the same time. For me, there were several important points that I took away from that session: Firstly, what a negative experience of mental health problems whilst at work looks like. She talked through the fraught experience of having to leave a job after a period of time off sick. Identifying what went wrong is part and parcel of learning how to do things well. Importantly, Nicola was therefore able to share what a supportive work environment looks like for someone who experiences periods of mental ill health, in her case bipolar disorder. The most important element that she identified in establishing a supportive work environment was for organisations to recognise mental health conditions, which allow employees to work around them. Among other things, this means knowing what to do when people are struggling at work and how to support this.
However the most striking part of the session was the audience’s response to this personal account of mental ill health. At the end of the session, which talked us through the cycle of manic and depressive episodes, the speaker was met with many thanks for sharing her personal experience. I think that this session went much further than any advice that could have been given to demonstrate to people how mental (ill) health can be supported in the workplace. As such, I believe that mental health awareness training could be a really important tool in helping both managers and colleagues understand when someone goes through a period of mental ill health. Understanding the experience of mental ill health is essential if we are to keep the person, and not the organisation, at the centre of the approach to health at work.
Putting prevention techniques in place to help employees stay mentally healthy is undoubtedly important. However when mental ill health does occur, organisations must ensure that they have the right mechanisms in place to support employees.